Jill Biden, education secretary visit Detroit public school summer enrichment program

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

Detroit — First lady Jill Biden and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona paid a visit Thursday morning to students attending a Detroit Public Schools Community District summer learning program at the Schulze Academy for Technology and Arts.

The summer academic and enrichment program is for students from kindergarten to eighth grade and is meant to give them access to educational and mental health resources outside of their normal academic terms, prepare them for the start of school in the fall and help them recover from lost learning time during the pandemic. 

Allison Parham is the parent of three students who attend Schulze Academy on the city's west side. She said she appreciated that her children have a place to go while she is at work and said her daughters have been implementing the skills they learn from the program at home.

First lady Jill Biden, right, with Angela Kemp, principal of Schulze Academy for Technology and Arts, and Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, talks to students in a photography class Thursday at the school.

"Coming out of the pandemic, with the summer learning program, it has really helped me and my children develop their social skills as well as their academic skills," Parham said. "Many of the community centers are not too close to my home, just this program alone — it's amazing."

Detroit is the second stop in the first lady's cross-country tour of summer learning and enrichment programs that use funds from President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. She and Cardona came from New Haven, Connecticut, and will continue to Athens, Georgia, later Thursday afternoon, despite President Joe Biden testing positive for COVID-19. Jill Biden said she tested negative for the virus Thursday morning and is staying masked in public places, per CDC guidelines. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has heavily impacted students' academic experiences and mental health, with COVID-related school closures disproportionately affecting economically disadvantaged, minority students in Michigan

Jill Biden, an English professor and career educator herself, emphasized the importance of using federal ARPA funds to help students' mental health in addition to making up for lost classroom time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I've seen the effects of the pandemic on learning," Biden said. "Our kids can catch up, they just need a little support to do it. And that's why ... I'm so grateful for the teachers who were inspiring our kids."

Many of the summer programs offered at Schulze Academy are focused on enrichment and engagement, rather than just academics. Biden and Cardona stopped by three classes on topics ranging from English literature to photography and cooking.

Teachers like Yolanda Scarborough, who runs an educational food service program called Camp Dinner Table, encourage their students through social and emotional learning.

Jill Biden and Detroit school Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, left, listen to teacher Yolanda Scarborough during a camp dinner table cooking class at Schulze Academy for Technology and Arts.

"We teach them how to talk about things like diversity and then we make diverse culturally relevant foods through our program," she said. "We want the families to come together, we want them to recognize the benefits of eating at a dinner table."

Cardona said building social skills and community is particularly important after the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"These students are learning not only how to read and write and math, but how to do skills and how to learn about themselves and connect with one another," Cardona said. "Because what I'm seeing today, and what you're doing exceptionally well here in Detroit, is using the American Rescue Plan dollars to create community, to create a sense of purpose."

Following Biden and Cardona's classroom visits, Republican National Committee spokesperson Preya Samsundar said Michigan Democrats were "hypocrites" and that they and the Biden administration sided with teachers over parents when it came to mask mandates in classrooms.

“Parents have not forgotten that Miguel Cardona compared them to ‘terrorists’ just a few short months ago," Samsundar wrote in an email, referencing a letter the National School Boards Association wrote last fall to the president that referenced vitriol and threats against school officials as "a form of domestic terrorism". 

"It doesn’t matter what Cardona or Jill Biden says, the Biden administration’s nauseating view on parents and the classroom is already clear,” Samsundar wrote.

The American Rescue Plan provided $122 billion to schools nationwide, $3.7 billion of which has been given to Michigan for elementary and secondary school emergency relief funding. 

The ARP requires a minimum of $2.4 billion to be spent across all states in support of high-quality afterschool and summer learning programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Detroit has received more than $800 million in ARP ESSER funds that have allowed the city's public schools to double their summer term enrollment to 8,000 students.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said the funds have helped put a nurse in every school building, expand mental health, offer after-school and summer programs and install air conditioning in all schools by 2027.

"I can finally say that over the last two years, we have felt equitably funded," Vitti said. "We have the resources that our children and families need to be successful."

The first lady agreed that the Detroit district has put its COVID relief funding to good use, encouraging other public school systems to follow suit.

"This partnership of these fiercely loving parents, tireless educators and dedicated leaders is putting all the funds from the American rescue plan to good use," Jill Biden said. "The president and I are calling on all school districts to follow your lead."

hmackay@detroitnews.com